Presenting Research at a Conference

I recently went to another conference, this time in Cappadocia. I’d heard about the fantastic landscapes there but was not prepared for how spectacular they actually are. An hour sitting in the sun drinking Turkish coffee with some friends and overlooking this view was a great way to relax after my plenary (on ‘Critical issues in professional learning’).

Conferences are a good professional experience in so many ways, not least for the networking opportunities they provide (this time I even met two language educators from Slovenia, where I now live). Observing how others present always provides learning opportunities too. One area of potential learning that conferences generally fail to address, though, is the development of the presenter. We do not become better presenters simply through repeated practice – we need feedback on that experience (this applies even to reflective individuals who are adept at self-evaluation). Unfortunately, for many presenters the experience of talking about their research at a conference involves planning and delivery but no post-experience feedback and reflection (perhaps beyond supportive words of congratulation from friends and colleagues). This model does not support speaker professional development. Without awareness of how we might present more effectively, the style of our next presentation is likely to be very much like the last. I am reminded of this gap at every conference I attend. The question, then, is there anything that can be done about it?

One option is for conference organisers to create feedback mechanisms within the programme so that the audience can provide comments on the sessions they attend. This would need to be kept quick and simple – delegates are not going to provide detailed comments on every session they attend. But perhaps one comment under ‘Worked well’ and one under ‘Think about’ at the end of each session and placed in a box on the way out of the room might be feasible. Speakers could even organise this themselves.

Speakers can also solicit feedback by providing their e-mail address at the end of the talk and explicitly asking the audience to send them any suggestions they think would help them in future presentations.

Speakers can, prior to their talk, also find a trusted (but sufficiently critical) colleague and ask them to attend and make some notes on the talk. These can be discussed afterwards, perhaps over a coffee. Or, at the end of the talk, the presenter might ask someone in the audience if they could sit down with them for five minutes to discuss the presentation (choosing wisely here is important though). Another option is for speakers to arrange for their talk to be video recorded; this can then be reviewed by a colleague at a later date, followed by a discussion with the speaker.

For these processes to be productive, presenters need to want and be open to feedback. Those providing the feedback also need to understand the importance of being specific and constructive in what they say (some useful advice on providing feedback generally is available here).  Feedback need not be complex; for example, a very common problem amongst novice and experienced presenters alike is too many PowerPoint slides with too much text on each; making speakers aware of this issue and how it impacts negatively on a presentation can make a significant difference to future performance (much advice on the use of PowerPoint generally is available on-line). And, of course, feedback should also allow for positive issues to be highlighted too – perhaps before areas of improvement are discussed. It’s important to note too that feedback is not just for novices; even accomplished presenters can benefit from thoughtful feedback.

There is of course much that we as presenters can do before a talk to improve its quality and the 20 tips available here and the 10 here are useful in that respect. My earlier blog on conference presentations at is also worth revisiting. However, supportive and constructive feedback after a talk is an essential part of developing as a presenter, and it would be good if conference organisers considered ways of creating opportunities for this and speakers made getting feedback a specific part of their strategy when they present at an event.

Do you have any thoughts and experiences on this issue and in particular on how speakers can create or be given opportunities to reflect on and learn from their experiences of presenting at a conference?

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Action Research

Cambridge English have for several years now been actively supporting action research for English language teachers. In Australia, their action research scheme has been run in collaboration with English Australia since 2010; in 2014, the Cambridge English-English UK action research award scheme was also launched. Six teachers participated in the first year of the UK scheme and last week the second year kicked off last year with eight new participants.

Action research is not a new idea; its origins can be traced back many years to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. Australia, in particular, has a strong tradition of educational action research going back some 30 years  (see, for example, the work of Kemmis & McTaggart) and this is evident too (especially through the work of Anne Burns) in the field of English language teaching. The basic idea in action research is that professional growth and better quality educational provision can be achieved when teachers (individually or collaboratively) engage in cycles of systematic classroom inquiry. Issues of interest, puzzles, problems and challenges are first identified, changes to practice are made in response to these and the impacts of these changes are then examined, leading into another cycle of inquiry. Practice is thus fine-tuned over time. Various diagrams are available which illustrate the cyclical nature of action research.

I was at a conference recently where action research was dismissed as being an unrealistic activity to expect busy teachers to engage in. So the first point to make is that action research is but one of many professional development options available to teachers and in many cases it will not be a suitable option – so no one is (or should be) suggesting that all teachers should be doing action research. Unfortunately, action research is sometimes promoted (by Ministries or teacher educators) without sufficient understanding of the kinds of conditions that need to exist for it be a productive experience; in such cases the outcomes will inevitably be negative. However, where the conditions are conducive, then there is no doubt that action research has significant transformative potential (read about one teacher’s experience here). I have been writing about the necessary conditions for a number of years (here’s an early article on this topic) and recent experiences on both the Australia and UK action research schemes mentioned above are providing further evidence of what makes action research successful. Some key ingredients are:

  • motivated teachers
  • institutional support
  •  on-going expert mentoring
  • access to resources
  • time
  • structure
  • realistic goal
  • an extended time-span (months rather than weeks)
  • opportunities to share outcomes (orally and in writing)

Some of these conditions, though, need to be qualified. For example, ‘time’ does not mean that teachers need to be given a significantly reduced workload to do action research – that is never really going to happen. Action research can be to a certain extent integrated into what teachers normally do, but some additional time will always be needed – in some projects I have worked on, for example, this has been one hour a week. And ‘access to resources’ does not mean that action research involves copious amounts of reading; some awareness of key sources of relevance is desirable but action research is primarily a practical activity and reading should support that and not take on a life of its own. Teachers typically do not have access to subscription-based journals, but plenty of good quality material is freely available on-line (I have compiled some here).

At the IATEFL conference in Manchester this year I will be talking about the first year of the Cambridge English-English UK action research scheme. Participants on the scheme were very positive about the experience and while this is rewarding for everyone involved I would also like to look more closely at the issue of continuing impact: several months after the end of the scheme, what do the teachers say about its lasting impact on them, their students, colleagues and institutions?

Some resources to follow-up here:

Reports from the Cambridge English-English Australia action research scheme : Issues 44, 48, 53 and 56.
A chapter called ‘What is action research?’ from this book
A booklet called ‘How to do action research in your classroom’.
Some chapters in this collection also look at action research.
And a new book ‘International perspectives on teacher research’ will  be available in March 2015.

If you have been involved in action research – as a participant or a facilitator – please post a comment about your experiences.

Posted in professional development, teacher research | 8 Comments

The Benefits of Attending Conferences

I’m writing this month’s blog to accompany the publication of an article that has just appeared in ELT Journal. The full text of the advance access version of the paper is available at (this link takes you to a pdf of the paper – if you are taken to a subscribers-only page, check that the link is not broken).

The research the article draws on was carried out for a project commissioned by the British Council and which was motivated by one key question: what are the benefits to teachers of attending international ELT conferences? Although attending conferences is generally seen to be a positive developmental activity for teachers, published empirical analyses supporting this assumption are scarce; I was in fact not able to identify any existing studies of relevance. As I note in the article, it is not difficult to find claims about the benefits of attending conferences, but what I was asked to do for this project was to collect evidence that might (or might not) back up such claims. As you will see from the article, the project was positive in its conclusions, highlighting a wide range of ways in which teachers felt they benefited from conference attendance. However, the study also makes recommendations for extending these benefits further through systematic support before and after conferences, especially for those with less experience of large international ELT events. The need for more, larger-scale research of this kind is also noted.

Methodologically, the study was an exciting challenge; the whole project had to be completed in two months but the time allocated to the project during this period was actually the equivalent of 10 days’ full-time work. This included designing the study, drafting, piloting and finalizing the questionnaire, defining the population, administering the questionnaire, identifying interviewees, conducting the interviews, analysing all the data, and writing the report. It is difficult to capture in a written report (which is necessarily neat and linear) the dynamic and complex manner in which the project unfolded, but logistically there were many challenges, not least scheduling appointments for interviews across different time zones. Securing a reasonable response rate to the questionnaire was also a challenge given the tight schedule and here reminder/thank you e-mails before the first and last deadline more than doubled the number of responses received when the questionnaire was first sent out. More than two reminders probably starts to feel like harassment, but well-timed and appropriately written (e.g. not sounding desperate or overly-forceful) reminders can have a major impact on the response rate to on-line surveys. And because it is not normally possible to send reminders only to those who have not responded, these reminders should always thank those who have already replied.

This project was also a good example of the facilitative role that technology can play in our work as researchers. The questionnaire was administered via the web-based SurveyMonkey service (other similar services are available – e.g. zoomerang, surveygizmo), while the interviews were conducted using Skype phone calls (I used Skype and to call interviewees on their mobile phones). Connections were generally clear, the costs were very reasonable (just under £60 for just over six hours of calls from Europe to mobile phones in the Gulf– roughly 17p a minute) and the calls could also (with permission of course) be recorded (for which I used the add-on called MP3 Skype recorder). Given the geographically-dispersed nature of respondents, without the support of the technology it would not have been feasible in the time available to access so many participants. Of course, technology can also exclude participants; for example, those who did not check their e-mails regularly or who were not comfortable with on-line surveys or telephone interviews were less likely to contribute; however, on balance, the context studied was one where technology was sufficiently well-embedded to justify technology-mediated research methods. The relative merits of on-line and paper-based surveys has been widely discussed and Nulty’s 2008  article provides a good introduction to this topic.

Please do read the article using the link above – I’d be interested in your reactions. If you have attended conferences, do you relate to some of the conclusions the study reaches about the benefits of such events to teachers? Are there additional benefits you’ve experienced but which did not emerge here? And would it be naïve to ignore that sometimes the main attraction of an international ELT event is overseas travel and a few days away from work? Let me know what you think.


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11 Models for Professional Development and 11 Claims About Them

This year I’ve had the opportunity to experience or learn about a range of different professional development (i.e. for in-service teachers) initiatives in various ELT contexts worldwide. If I attempt to categorize the different approaches to professional development I have encountered this is what I get: Continue reading

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Teacher research: practical and relevant classroom inquiry

Read my latest blog on teacher research on the Cambridge University Press ELT site –

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